What Starbucks Is Ditching Along With CDs
I CURRENTLY possess around six large moving boxes of compact discs tossed beneath a tarp in the dank cellar of my apartment building. Since 1999, I have been receiving promotional copies of CDs, an occupational hazard of my job as a professional music critic.
I generally stopped purchasing CDs 11 years ago, on the occasion of my first, pink iPod, a first-generation Mini that revolutionized my ability to work virtually anywhere without the extra baggage of jewel cases and an unwieldy Discman.
Now, when record labels send physical copies of CDs rather than email digital files, it seems like an imposition — I know, a real first-world problem, but I live in Brooklyn. Who has space for all of this? A friend of mine, also a critic, used to live among towers of CDs, to the point they threatened to take over his entire apartment. I imagined the Fire Department one day having to break in and rescue him from a toppled pile, pinned under stacks of Maroon 5 promos, the worst way to die.
The CD, never a much-loved object, is inching toward critical endangerment. At the end of this month, Starbucks plans to stop selling CDs from those comforting cardboard counter-display cases, where they were as convenient an impulse buy as mints and biscotti. The company’s decision does not come as a shock; what’s most surprising is that Starbucks continued to hawk CDs for this long.
According to Nielsen, sales of albums on CD decreased by 14.9 percent in 2014, compared with an overall increase in streaming. Even with an uptick in vinyl sales among purists (Nielsen tracked a vinyl sales increase of 51.8 percent), our music collections as tangible, tactile objects are well on their way out.
I’ve dragged my own CD boxes from apartment to apartment for more than a decade, certain that one day I will hire someone to convert them all to MP3, a task so banal and time-consuming the thought of it makes me want to bury myself under the stacks with my friend. I can tick off most of the music I have down there, some of which would probably do well as eBay loot — if I ever bothered to sell them. When I moonlight as a D.J., I no longer rely on crates of vinyl and CDs. I use my MP3 collection and an app on my iPad. Still, I can’t quite unclutter the CDs rotting in boxes in my basement. They’re more memories than objects, impossible to trash.
Starbucks has been selling CDs since the mid-1990s, but began a heavier push toward mass distribution a few years later, about the same time that I began swearing off them — a savvy business decision for the coffee company as well as the musicians it stocked. But the fact that its endeavor began around the rise of the iPod only sealed the CDs’ fate: Starbucks was simply prolonging the inevitable end, a caffeinated march to the whimpering finale for the medium.
Still, there’s a sense of nostalgia to it. I miss the old Virgin Megastore in Union Square, which shut down in 2009, and the visceral experience of flipping through the stacks, discovering new albums through means so simple as their interesting cover art or, even better, via new-release listening stations equipped with a skip-track button and germy headphones. If the label sent you the record, spending the time opening all that packaging — ugh, the impossible-to-open sticky tape on jewel cases — was still an investment, like reading a book in the library.
Now I discover most new music on Soundcloud and Tumblr, and while it’s infinitely more convenient insofar as it does not require me to physically part myself from my laptop, it doesn’t feel quite as adventuresome.
The CDs stacked on the display cases at Starbucks didn’t just signify that Starbucks was hip, but that the coffee chain was set on asserting itself as a player in the music industry. Coffeehouse rock as a genre was suddenly quite literal, and associated with such easy, chill, adult contemporary acts like Norah Jones, whose “Come Away With Me” at one point seemed impossible to avoid at a Starbucks. The category was folk, it was smooth jazz, it was even certain types of really cool music like salsa from the famed New York label Fania or a compilation album from Sonic Youth. In critics’ circles, “Starbucks music” became derisive shorthand for music with no edge, music to buy on a whim.
It seems likely that as CDs disappear from big-box stores and coffee megachains, they will be definitively gone. We’ll trade the clinical sound of a CD track for its compressed MP3 counterpart. And though to my ear the difference is negligible, music will sound ever so slightly worse.
For serious music fans, of course, there is no shortage of other tactile ways to show off a collection — and by doing so, send a message to the world not just of your taste but of what kind of person you are. Not only is vinyl on the upswing, but we’re even in the midst of a mini-renaissance of a formerly archaic music-storage medium: the cassette tape, which is newly in vogue among young underground punk purists and D.I.Y. record labels.
In the ’90s, I had three or four plastic milk crates of cassettes that I lugged around from apartment to apartment, long after I lost my tape player. I still have a few I can’t part with. Even with the notion of entirely digitizing our music libraries, having something we can hold in our hands is, simply, a more complete visceral experience. It transforms the music into a material good, not simply an abstraction.
Technology isn’t taking our physical music collections away from us entirely, though. Last year, Sony announced that it had invented a cassette tape that has the potential to hold 185 terabytes of data. Though it’s not currently aimed at individual consumers, it’s likely that one day music fans could get a version of it, and wonder why we wasted all our time on such useless gadgets as iPods and hard drives.